Monday, September 26, 2016

Pakistan poses problems too serious to be left to jingoist TV anchors and Sangh Parivar hawks


Patriotic quibbling will not hide the basic fact -- that Pakistan has boxed India into a tight corner. As happened in the wake of the Mumbai terror attack eight years ago, every muscle in our body politic twitches to take revenge against the rogue state. But a whole bunch of reality checks hold us back. Fortunately, the Prime Minister recognised this and resisted hawkish pressure from his own party parivar. That prevented the tight corner from developing into a trap.

By now diplomatic, political, strategic and security specialists have weighed the options open to India and unanimously rejected military retaliation. Many have openly admitted that India, despite having one of the finest fighting forces in the world, has not kept pace with modernisation and resources-building. We do not have the sophisticated paraphernalia to stage, for example, the kind of operation that enabled American SEALS to dive deep into Pakistan and get Osama bin Laden.

The idea of isolating Pakistan cannot go far either. The frenzied shoutings of our television anchors might give the impression that world powers have taken positions in support of India. What world powers have done is to condemn terrorism and sympathise with its Indian victims. Not one of them has mentioned Pakistan as being responsible for the attack.

Russia's statement is, as diplomatic statements go, the most sympathetic to India. But let us not forget that, following India's policy shift away from Moscow in recent years, Russia has signed various treaties with Pakistan. According to one of these, 24 of Russia's deadly SU-35 fighter jets will be delivered to Pakistan before this year is out. As for the US, India may have signed the logistics agreement. And some Senators may have moved resolutions against Pakistan. But Pakistan is recognised by Washington as a key element in America's plans to disengage from Afghanistan. It's clear that America will not be a friend in need for India as China would be for Pakistan.

Such nuanced shades of grey are no problem for jingoists of the black-and-white world, be they television superheroes or Sangh parivar pundits. One of the latter made a bombastic call: "For one tooth, the complete jaw". A problem with Sangh parivar hardliners is that their admiration for Israel leads them to believe that if you attack opponents harshly enough, you will eliminate them. More than half a century of harsh, often inhuman, Israeli attacks did not eliminate Palestinian resistance. In fact battling the sadistic Israeli forces has become a people's movement in Palestine. The sudden increase in popular resistance in Kashmir in recent months has been quickly seized by Pakistan as ammunition against India in international forums.

Israel does a great many other things without anyone knowing about them, and India can learn from some of those. One of them is that spy/intelligence chiefs must not make public pronouncements. When the last chief of Mossad expressed an opinion after his retirement, his diplomatic passport was taken away by way of punishment.

Two years ago, at a public meeting, Ajit Doval went into the details of India's options against Pakistan. One was: "You do one Mumbai. You may lose Baluchistan". On independence day this year, Prime Minister Modi virtually endorsed that line. We thus gave Pakistan all it wanted to know which way we were thinking and the time to start preparing its counter strategies.

Baluchistan is no doubt a festering sore for Pakistan rulers. But how far can India go to make another Bangladesh out of it? East Bengal was contiguous with India. Baluchistan is not. What's more, it is contiguous with Iran -- and Shia Iran will have its own views on Sunni Baluchistan becoming independent as there is a large number of Baluchis in Iran's south-eastern province. And why would Iran want to take the risk of supporting Baluchis for India's sake when India actively sided with America in the sanctions against Iran and, even now, seems none too enthusiastic about joint programmes like oil pipe lines?

In this bleak scenario, Modi did well by choosing a policy of strategic restraint. In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror strike, Modi had accused the Congress Government of doing nothing and said: "Talk to Pakistan in Pakistan's language because it won't learn lessons till then". The Modi Government now must talk to Pakistan in Pakistan's language. It must do so without addressing public meetings, keeping in mind the principle: The guerilla wins when he does not lose, the army loses when it does not win.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Can there be an India with State fighting State? Language destroyed a culture in Babylon


The Tower of Babel was built, and its builders punished, for specific reasons. The Hebrew-Babylonian legend identifies Nimrod as the ruler who ordered the construction. Overly confident about his power, he disliked people thanking God for everything. He wanted them to believe that it was their own effort and courage that brought them prosperity. To stop them from fearing God, he turned himself into a tyrant so that people would fear him instead.

This is logical political theory as we can see if we leave God out of it for a moment and look at Nimrod as a political boss competing with other political bosses. He wants people not to feel beholden to other party bosses, not to feel apprehensive about any leader but himself. He presents himself as the only master worth listening to. The spirit of rivalry is dramatically highlighted in the Jewish rabbinic version of the legend according to which the builder of the Tower said, 'God has no right to choose the upper world for himself, leaving the lower world to us. So we will build us a tower that is high with an idol on top holding a sword as if it is ready to war with God'. Exactly the kind of bravado our political bosses exhibit and their fringe warriors act upon.

Of course, no political chief so challenged will take it lying down. God had once tried to correct things by creating The Great Flood and allowing the survival of only a chosen few. They had grown into a united humanity, held together by a single language. But when they became proud and tried to challenge him, God decided to punish them again. Since annihilation by floods had not taught them to become god-fearing, God tried a different approach this time. He created a confusion of tongues among them. People could no longer understand one another because they spoke in multiple languages. Lack of understanding led to disunity and mutual suspicion. Scattered by linguistic division and unable to work together, people abandoned the Tower of Babel. Babylon became a synonym for ancientness, buried in the pages of forgotten history.

Many modern towers have since arisen -- from the Eiffel Tower to Dubai's Burj Khalifa -- all of them made possible by the unity of people in the countries concerned and the popular backing their visionary leaders enjoyed. Across the world, progress has been registered only when a leader's high-minded goals were accepted as such by the people whose support was never influenced by religious, provincial or linguistic differences. This is borne out by the stand-out achievements of recent history -- from the transformation of Germany from a war wreck to Europe's most powerful economy by a handful of statesmen beginning with Konrad Adenauer, to the transformation of Kuala Lumpur from a lazy village to a world metropolis in the span of a single generation by Mahathir Mohammed.

Fifteen prime ministers, scores of chief ministers and seven decades have not helped India achieve comparable progress in any field (except space research, praise be to the scientists). In key fields we have gone backward -- public health and quality of education, for example. Epidemic corruption has no doubt been a prime reason. But let us not minimise the role played by our disunities, religious and linguistic in particular. How can India progress when there are no Indians, there are only Tamilians, Kannadigas and Malayalis; Punjabis and Haryanvis; Bengalis, Assamese, Biharis and Odiyas; when even speakers of the same language split into Telengana and Andhra Pradesh?

Can there be an India at all when 56 passenger buses are burned down near Bangalore because they belonged to a Tamil Nadu company? Or when Woodlands, a Chennai landmark for years, is hit by petrol bombs because it had Kannadiga connections? Or when vehicles with TN registration are targetted in Karnataka and those with KA number plates attacked in Tamil Nadu? Assaulting pilgrims in Rameswaram was unforgivable because pilgrims are not Kannadigas or Telugus, but pilgrims just as Tamils going to Sabarimala or Kollur Mookambika temple are not just Tamils but devotees. Pilgrims deserve respect transcending race and language.

Violence solves nothing. It only produces counter-violence. Water-sharing among neighbouring states is a serious matter, best left to subject experts to work out, not to politicians seeking temporary electoral gains. If God has no right to choose the upper world, politicians have less right to work up passions for cheap applause. Leave it to the temporal gods of the Constitution.


Monday, September 12, 2016

Aam aadmi turns into harm aadmi, then to damn aadmi. Yet another chance of clean politics gone

When Anna Hazare disowned Arvind Kejriwal, it was clear that all was not well with the Aam Aadmi Party experiment. When Kejriwal summarily dismissed his original team mates Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav, AAP's intentions and directions came under a big cloud. Then Kejriwal's chosen faithfuls began showing signs of absurdity: Minister Somnath Bharti raided and roundly attacked African women resident in Delhi; publicity-hungry court poet Kumar Biswas exposed his parochial pettiness by attacking Imam Husain, some Hindu deities and "Kali peeli" Kerala nurses at one go.

Generally speaking, the public was inclined to set aside such lapses as the stupidities of immature men who had suddenly tasted power. People wanted AAP to grow into an alternative to the established, deeply corrupted, caste- and religion-driven parties that had come to monopolise power. Even when the Central government took on the AAP government in Delhi as enemy number one, sympathy went in favour of the David being harassed by the Goliath. Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung contributed immensely to that sympathy quotient by being more loyal than the king to the BJP government.

In the early days when Delhi ministers were arrested by Central government's agencies, it was seen as vengefulness by an intolerant BJP that could not stomach an opposition party ruling Delhi. A mature leadership could have turned this in AAP's favour. Instead, its leaders began to appear in scandals.

Kumar Biswas himself was the first to have that distinction. A campaign volunteer accused him of molesting her and making "sexually coloured' remarks, and a metropolitan magistrate ordered an FIR against him. This time a minister, Sandeep Kumar, was arrested following a woman's complaint that he had raped her. Kejriwal had no alternative but to sack him. But the matter went on to become a real mess. Sandeep Kumar said his private secretary had blackmailed him (the P.S.was arrested); AAP's ranking leader Ashutosh not only backed Kumar by saying that his was a case of consensual sex but compared it with Jawaharlal Nehru's "reported affairs with many female colleagues" which did not spoil his political career; the Sunday Standard reported that Kumar had sent his pregnant wife to the US so that his child would be born a US citizen; a BJP leader said the police investigation would reveal "more dark secrets" of the AAP.

All hopes of a Kejriwal-led AAP becoming a national political force have now come to an end. As Hazare lamented, AAP has lost its moral credibility. He spoke for all when he said: "I was hoping that Arvind would set a different example for politics in India and give a different direction to the nation". That simply is not in Kejriwal. One of the most popular AAP figures, Raghav Chedda had said: "The idea of clean politics, affordable politics, volunteerism -- all these are AAP's basic ideals". Whatever happened to those ideals?

Raghav Chedda is the face of idealist Indians who joined the AAP with the best of intentions. As the party's spokesman, his sincerity matched his ability and, not surprisingly, he gathered what must be the largest fan-base among television figures. How can he now defend his morally weakened party? How can Meera Sanyal, who gave up her CEO post in the Royal Bank of Scotland to serve the country through what she thought was the only acceptable party, carry on with the party now? How can V.Balakrishnan, an Infosys leader who left his high position to join AAP, get along with a tainted party?

Two years ago, one of only four AAP candidates to win the Lok Sabha elections, comedian Bhagwant Mann was categorical when he said, "the future belongs to BJP and AAP. Congress will be in coma for at least 10-15 years". He might still say that because he is a comedian by profession. For more serious people, it will be difficult to imagine the AAP getting anywhere as it is presently constituted. People talk of the party splitting, of new leaders rising.

All are agreed that India needs to break out of the prevailing stranglehold of manipulative politics. Clearly Kejriwal is not up to it. His judgment of people is flawed. He is autocratic and surrounds himself with dubious friends. His chapter is as good as over.

Who will write a new chapter? And when? No one seems to have an answer. Meanwhile, it has been announced that Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan are teaming up for a new movie called The Thugs of Hindostan. Hm...who could that be about?

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Should making friends also mean making enemies? New challenges as the non-alignment era ends


India gave up non-alignment and joined the American bloc last week -- a historical shift in the nation's ideograph. As he signed the Logistics Agreement in Washington, Defence Minister Parrikar tried to give the impression that it was a routine matter. Routine protests came from the Congress and the CPI-M politburo. It was routine news for the media, too. Yet, the implications of the policy switch are such that a whole new India may be in the making with a whole new set of problems, challenges and, yes, opportunities.

Non-alignment was an inspirational concept when it took centrestage in the 1950s. Colonialism had collapsed and several newly independent nations had emerged in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This "Third Word" was confronted by the intense cold war then going on between the US-led and the Soviet Union-led blocs. That was when Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Josip Tito came up with the idea of not aligning with either bloc. It enabled many new countries to stand on their own feet without becoming the followers of one or the targets of another.

The non-alignment movement has been in limbo, a casualty of time. Nehru's India changed, Nasser's Egypt dead and Tito's Yugoslavia disappeared. The world is different with different economic compulsions, different threats, different aims. But some things don't -- and shouldn't -- change, such as the need for countries to keep good relations with other countries. A major power like India needs to develop its bilateral relations without letting shadows fall on its multilateral relations.

Parrikar said that there was no question of America setting up bases in India as a result of the Logistics Agreement. Why would America want to do such a foolish thing when the Agreement makes all Indian military bases available to it? The thrust of the Agreement was laid bare without inhibitions by American sources. Forbes magazine reported the impending pact with the headline: "China and Pakistan beware -- this week India and US sign war pact". US media in general projected the Agreement as a key part of the Obama Government's strategy to contain China. One of the facts they brought to light was that 60 percent of the US navy's surface ships are to be deployed in the "Indo-Pacific" theatre. For air and land deployment of forces, the US had to build massive bases in Iraq and Afghanistan from scratch. In eastern Asia now readymade bases and allied facilities will be available to them free. Voice of America reported a US General as saying: "We are completely integrated, with both the Indian army and our army working together down to platoon level".

That kind of integration was something earlier governments had decided to avoid. Both A.B.Vajpayee and US-loving Manmohan Singh kept the Logistics and other "foundational" agreements with the US pending precisely to avoid becoming branded as America's camp-followers in global strategy. With India becoming a facilitator of US strategy in Asia, it will be difficult for Delhi to sustain its familiar profile as a country that follows an independent foreign policy. American reports point to the state-of-the-art military technology India will now receive and say, no doubt to cheer up India, that such technology and armaments will "help India stand up to the emerging superpower, China".

Will such an attitude be good for India? Even the technology-armament scenario is not going to make India self-dependent in the near future. Lockheed Martin has offered to shift its F-16 manufacturing to India. This sounds promising if it is going to create new jobs for Indians and contribute to the Make-In-India concept. But the US is a trader, not a philanthropist. India has already signed a US $ 3 billion deal for 15 Cherokee heavy-lift helicopters and 22 Apache attack choppers. This also signifies a historic shift from Russia, hitherto the principal supplier of military ware to India.

The ultimate question is whether it is in India's interest to cut out Russia and to appear as an antagonist getting ready to confront China. India became a major international player by ensuring that it was not an appendix of any power group. India has the status and the experience to remain an influential power without alienating its neighbours. It is true that China has been less than friendly, having put all its eggs in a non-state basket like Pakistan. Does that mean that there is no scope for collaboration with China which badly needs India's market? Leadership is the art of making friends without making enemies.



Monday, August 29, 2016

Is India rising? What are the new hopes, new fears? A reporter's account makes for a readable story


There is no end to books coming out on India. On Narendra Modi alone there are already more than a dozen. Expect more. Obviously the market is good even if some books say nothing a la P.V.Narasimha Rao's two "autobiographies". Journalists, fabled as composers of "the first draft of history", often tend to take sides. When they don't, some worthwhile books come out such as Inder Malhotra's biography of Indira Gandhi. Into this category falls India Rising: Fresh Hopes, New Fears by Ravi Velloor, a Delhi journalist who went to Singapore and turned himself into an institution there.

What makes this book eminently readable is its story-telling style. Velloor's account of the 2004 tsunami is a powerful chapter. But there is no hint of the disaster in the opening paragraph which is all about his spending the morning after Christmas Day 2004 on a golf course in central New Delhi with three officers of India's admiralty. His telling of Bangalore's IT revolution starts, not with Narayana Murthy or Azim Premji, but with Arjun Kalyanpur, a radiologist who sits in his villa in Whitefield and reads scan results of a patient being examined in a Chicago hospital. Even the terrorist attack in Mumbai comes alive with the Velloor touch. "Jai Arya, executive vice president of the Bank of New York's Singapore operations and his wife Rohini were dining [at the Oberoi Trident] with Ashok Kapur and his wife Madhu. Ashok, who was my wife's cousin, was chairman of Yes Bank and had earlier led the Rabobank's Singapore operations and we were frequent visitors at his bungalow". Three paragraphs later, Ashok is dead on the hotel's stairs.

Velloor now holds an exalted position in Singapore's Straits Times, but his real strength remains the reporter's blood coursing through his veins. Operating out of Delhi in the 1980's, he was amazingly networked, his quiet and subdued nature earning the trust of his contacts. The reporter's approach helps Velloor come out with unexpected details. Dawood Gilani alias David Coleman Headley is introduced as a "6-foot-2 figure with a gigolo-like frame" who is "half Gilani, half Armani. Indeed, one of his eyes was blue, the other brown".

For those who thought that Velloor was a practitioner of soft journalism, the chapter on Shashi Tharoor would be revealing. No, there is no frontal attack, except perhaps in the grammar-defying chapter title, "Style and Scandal: Diplomatic Blunder Tharoor". It's about how Tharoor's bid for UN Secretary General's post was doomed even before it started, how Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi made a blunder by sponsoring him, and how, after he lost out, Tharoor still planned to hold on to his UN bureaucratic job. The newly elected Ban Ki Moon had to convey to him: "I'm surprised you want to stay on, Shashi". To be sure, Tharoor is one contact that will no longer be available to Velloor.

On the other hand, Velloor is overly well-disposed towards the former intelligence boss and National Security Advisor (NSA) M.K.Narayanan whose bizarre joke, "I have a dossier on you", was unsettling to a generation of Indians. He makes only a parenthetical reference to the Mumbai terror attack blemishing the intelligence chief's reputation. Actually, that attack and Rajiv Gandhi's assassination were India's biggest intelligence failures of all time -- and both happened on Narayanan's watch. Velloor's account confirms that Narayanan considered himself as the best NSA, when in fact the superior professionalism of J.N.Dixit put him in the shade. Narayanan would get into quarrels with Dixit, as he would with Home Minister Chidambaram and even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Eventually his influence in the Gandhi household also dwindled and Manmohan banished him from Delhi by making him Governor of West Bengal. Velloor's portrait of "the confident, articulate M.K.Narayanan" looks tilted.

There is neither tilt nor ambiguity when he endorses the opinion about A.KAntony as India's "worst defence minister ever". Nor does the Singaporean in him hesitate to say that some of the strategic rivalry between India and China "perhaps lives more in Delhi's mind than in America-focussed Beijing's". As for Narendra Modi, Velloor chronicles the insecurity that has spread among many Indians and also differentiates Hindutva from Indutva (Indianness), but gives the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt with the chapter heading, "Right Man, Wrong Party?"

Velloor does well by making the best use of his reportorial gifts; he steers clear of deep analyses, socio-economic interpretations or historical decipherments. India Rising is not a Picasso; it's a Ravi Varma, realistic, colourful, thoroughly enjoyable.